Western North Dakota is Better Served When Different Views are Heard

I spent last week in Western North Dakota. The trip was set up because I was invited to speak at a gathering in Dickinson. 2014 was the last time I had been there when I ran for the Public Service Commission. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit since so much has changed in those three years. Here is a recap of my observations.

The Tuesday night event in Dickinson was hosted by area Democrats but open to the general public. Ellie Potter of The Dickinson Press wrote about the panel discussion. After losing reelection last year, I have left behind any official capacity within the Dem-NPL so I wasn’t sure my input would was warranted. It didn’t deter the hosts from having me as they’re simply looking for different perspectives on what took place in the Legislative Session that otherwise might not be heard in western areas. It was a pleasure to participate. Following the event I spent a couple of days visiting with others over coffee or at happy hour.

Democrats have not fared well electorally west of Jamestown. Because of that, Republicans have had a monopoly on the dialogue in Western North Dakota. Perhaps that is more pronounced in Dickinson since the NDGOP Chair and the Senate Majority Leader both call it home. Devoid of perspectives different from the manufactured talking points created by advertising agencies and delivered by politicians can skew reality. The result is Western North Dakota receives the short end of the stick but are being told otherwise.

So what are our western neighbors hearing when the narrative isn’t being challenged? They’re hearing the Legislature has been prudent and weathered the current budgetary storm well. That Western ND is stronger under their sole leadership. That Democrats would have been awful for western counties. That the budget shortfall is because of factors outside of the leadership’s decisions in Bismarck.

Here is my challenge to the narrative being spun. The Legislature has not been fiscally prudent and the budget they passed this year to get us through the next two is unsustainable. If you thought the cuts to services, like the rural maintenance shop in New England south of Dickinson, and the rise in your property taxes (which you won’t notice until after the 2018 election) were bad this session, wait until 2019 if we don’t have a dramatic surge in economic activity.

Western ND had grown rapidly as oil prices were high and with it came growing pains. The Legislature failed to adequately address some of those pains because they wanted too much control in the Capitol in Bismarck. It is not enough to simply campaign on local control. In fact, Dem-NPL legislators moved to allow western oil-producing counties to keep more of the oil tax revenue to address their own rapidly developing challenges. There was no need for county and city commissioners to travel to Bismarck hat-in-hand and beg legislators for more assistance every two years. Instead, central and eastern Republicans refused, and western legislators caved. At least they’d be able to take a photo opportunity with a big cardboard check that they’d later use in campaign materials.

The budget shortfall is due to external factors and fiscal mismanagement in Bismarck. The dramatic increases in spending coupled with arbitrary tax cuts were unsustainable. Republican leadership was warned about this but ignored it. I’m not saying that as a former Dem-NPL legislator, I’m saying that as a voter. The voting public in ND rejected some of the tax cuts the legislature eventually passed on their own. They didn’t listen to you. Now it appears we are over reliant on one commodity for the budget.

Here is the thing; a good, honest, debate to better Western North Dakota won’t be had unless the North Dakota Democratic-NPL makes a good, conscious effort to connect with those neighbors. Just as I’ve criticized the national Democratic Party for ignoring states like ours, I need to criticize the state party for its lack of effort in western districts. The difference between the two is the lack of resources from the state party. I’m told there are efforts at both levels to correct this practice.

The monopoly of the debate doesn’t serve the general public well. Misleading claims go unanswered. Without having other views on the state’s functions readily available, elected officials can act without accountability. Having both sides of an honest debate leads to better outcomes in the long run. I look forward to continuing that conversation here.